"Facebook For Doctors" Connects Physicians and Saves Lives

Welcome to Newberry, Michigan

Sixty miles from the Canadian border, the village of Newberry, Michigan has about 1500 people. And one general surgeon that serves all of them: Dr. Richard Armstrong.

“Newberry has a very small town community atmosphere. It does feel isolated sometimes, but it’s a good place,” he says.

While living in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan can mean small town charm, it can also mean isolation for a profession like medicine, where specialists have become so important.

How does Dr. Armstrong handle it?

Sermo – a “Facebook” for Doctors

Welcome to the online world of Sermo – a kind of Facebook for doctors that lets them get second opinions and help diagnose cases from a community of 200,000 physicians.

“Now you can ask a whole community of doctors all over the country, ‘What do you think of this?’ and they can answer you freely,” says Dr. Armstrong.

That includes the isolated physicians of the Floating Doctors mission in Panama.

“They were able to actually use Sermo straight from a mission in remote Panama in the jungle and get responses overnight to their cases by 50 or more physicians from around the United States,” notes Dr. Armstrong.

[Related: How a trip to Africa changed one doctor forever]

“We’re not Panama, but we’re isolated,” he adds.

Since 2007, Dr. Armstrong has posted more than a thousand times on Sermo. He’s so passionate about the technology that he became one of the company’s medical advisers two years.

Sermo in Action

By using Sermo, Dr. Armstrong has been able to manage difficult cases outside his immediate specialty.

With the Helen Newberry Joy Hospital & Healthcare Center, where he practices, being 100 miles from a major medical facility, that can be pretty helpful.

“We had one case in particular…a gentleman with thyroid cancer that had a very complex issue. Then we had endocrinologists, endocrine surgeons and general surgeons discussing it. We ended up referring him to a treatment protocol at the University of Michigan based upon the Sermo conversation.”

[Related: Boomers retiring to rural areas won’t find doctors]

With 800,000 licensed physicians in the United States, Sermo has managed to attract about 200,000 – though only about 25% are active.

Several of Dr. Armstrong’s colleagues find Sermo also helps them stay connected with like-minded physicians.

“We’re a handful of physicians isolated being in a rural hospital,” said family physician Dr. Michael Beaulieu. “When I access Sermo, it’s like entering the world’s largest physician lounge.”

The Future of Medical Diagnosis?

While Sermo helps Armstrong and his colleagues overcome their isolation, could it have a role reinvigorating the practice of medicine? Armstrong thinks so: “I think this is a way for doctors to communicate doctor to doctor. Cutting out all of the middlemen and the people that distort what it’s like to actually care for patients hands-on every day. Doctors really like to do medicine and they don’t always feel like they have to get paid for giving advice.”

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